Long before football and other team sports were played in Belize, the ancient Maya played a ball game called Pok ta Pok. Many Maya sites in the country boast traditional ball courts, Lamanai, Caracol and Xunantunich being among them. The game, which was heavily spiritual symbolizing good versus evil, consisted of two teams maneuvering a heavy rubber ball with their hips and thighs endeavoring to get the ball through the stone hoop attached to the wall on either side of the court.
In an effort to retain the Maya culture, the sport was re- introduced to Belize in 2015 in particular to the small village of Yo Creek in the Orange Walk district. The Ek’ Balam team or Black Jaguars, were established and the coach Menalio Novelo (now co-manager) led them to victory in Guatemala in 2017 for the World Tournament Championship Games. During that tournament they never lost a single game!
On their victorious return, so as to get more players to join the sport, Ek’ Balam split to make two teams, some playing in the original team, under their Captain Didier Novelo, maintaining that name and others joining the newly created Sak Xikin. In the nearby village of Xaibe another group of young men established the Xaibe Subin K’in Pok ta Pok team and these three teams practice and play exhibition matches regularly. For these friendlies, a simpler version of the game called Ulama is usually played and there is no hoop. The ceremonial part is still observed and it is customary before the game starts, to bless all four corners of the court and cleanse both players and court with copal (a burning incense that is sacred to the Maya). Traditional costume is worn.
When playing an actual tournament today, the rules may be a little different from those of the ancient Maya. Each match consists of 2 x twenty minute sections with six minutes of half time and only 4 men in each team are allowed on court at a time. Points are gained for getting the ball over the baseline or the opponents goal/hoop line. Fouls are given for touching the ball with hands, feet or head. The game is immediately won if the ball gets through the hoop (not an easy feat!) In Ancient times, the winning team was sacrificed, the ultimate honor. Today thankfully they just come away with a trophy!
The many magnificent Maya sites that scatter the landscape of Belize are testament to this incredible civilization. The Maya built amazing cities, they traded in jade and obsidian, they had their own calendar, they were arguably the inventors of chocolate in the form of a spicy drink and wait for it…. they were the inventors of chewing gum…
Chewing gum as we know it was originally a white rubbery sap known as chicle, that came from the Sapodilla tree that was common in Belize and Central America. The Maya used this chicle to help keep their breath fresh and to stop hunger and thirst.
In 1866 a certain American called Thomas Adams was introduced to Chicle in Mexico and thus began the chewing gum industry. In Belize there were four types of chicle, Female, crown gum, male and Bull. Female was considered the best and was more abundant in Northern Belize. The ‘chiclero’ was the man responsible for extracting this precious resin. It was an arduous and dangerous task, involving camping out during rainy season and climbing huge trees before cutting grooves in the bark and collecting the sap in bags. The chicle was then cooked in iron pots to the required consistency and then poured into moulds and shipped to Belize City, where companies such as Wrigleys would import it to America. The chewing gum industry reached its height in the 1930s and 40s. However over production eventually led to its demise. Each chicle producing tree needed 3- 8 years before it could be tapped again and it became unsustainable. As a result companies started looking for an alternative in artificial gum and sadly the chicle industry along with its chicleros became defunct.
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